The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (2007) – the American chapters

Alex Ross’s the Rest is Noise is by far the most comprehensive and accessible introduction to the classical music of the long difficult twentieth century that I know of.

Born in 1968, Alex Ross studied classical composition, but was also a rock DJ at Harvard. He was just 28 when he was appointed classical music critic for New Yorker magazine, combining formidable technical and historical knowledge with a wonderfully clear and expressive prose style. He has a modern, unstuffy, relaxed approach to music of all sorts and sounds.

Having recently visited an exhibition of art from 1930s America and read the book of the exhibition, I decided to reread the relevant chapters of Ross’s masterwork to shed light on the musical highlights of the period. In the event this also requires reading one of the earlier chapters in the book, the one which describes the beginnings of 20th century American music.


Chapter 4 – Invisible men: American composers from Ives to Ellington

African American music

Slavery. Blacks. African Americans. The chapter opens by describing the way prescient critics and composers grasped that the one truly new and different element in American music was the black African element. It’s amazing to learn that when the Czech composer Antonín Dvořák went to New York in 1892 to teach at the new National Conservatory, he met a black composer, Harry T. Burleigh, who introduced him to African American spirituals, prompting the European master to write an article on ‘the Real Value of Negro Melodies’ in 1893 and predict that:

the future music of this country must be founded upon  what are called the negro melodies.

The early part of the chapter lists black composers who struggled to reconcile the European tradition with their background, and coming up against prejudice, racism, the difficulty of getting a full classical training and, if they did, of writing in a foreign idiom and getting performed. Ragtime classic Scott Joplin wrote an opera which was never performed. Harry Lawrence freeman founded the Negro Grand Opera Company and wrote two tetralogies of operas in the Wagner tradition, but which were never performed. Maurice Arnold Strohotte who Dvořák thought the most gifted of his pupils had a piece titled American Plantation Dances performed at the National Conservatory in 1894, but then couldn’t get any subsequent works performed and languished in obscurity. Will Marion Cook managed to get into one of the few colleges which accepted blacks and became a world class violinist, moving to Germany where – surprisingly – he was respected and taken seriously. Back in America he found his career blocked, began work on a classical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but never completed it, and found himself driven to orchestrating and directing blackface musical revues, and then a bandleader founding the New York Syncopated Review, and hiring the young genius clarinettist Sidney Bechet as star soloist.

Cook’s career shows how the exclusion of black ‘serious’ composers from the mainstream pushed them again and again towards music halls, revues, popular music – and indirectly fuelled the creation of jazz. Once this had crystallised as a form, a completely new style of music, towards the end of the Great War, there was an explosion of long-suppressed talent. The Russian pianist, composer and conductor Anton Rubinstein had predicted, back in 1893, that within 25 years Negro musicians would form ‘a new musical school’.

Neither he nor Dvořák nor many of the wannabe black classical composers could have anticipated just how revolutionary the advent of jazz would be. As Ross puts it, with characteristic eloquence:

The characteristic devices of African-American musicking – the bending and breaking of diatonic scales, the distortion of instrumental timbre, the layering of rhythms, the blurring of the distinction between verbal and nonverbal sound – opened new dimensions in musical space, a realm beyond the written notes. (p.122)

Just reeling off the names of some of the masters of jazz is dizzying – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman. As is the list of Broadway masters who came to fame in the 1920s – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin. They invented rhythms, styles, timings, structures, tones and timbres, and wrote thousands of compositions which changed the nature of music all round the world.

Charles Ives (1874-1954)

Histories of modern American classical music generally begin with Ives. The son of a traditional marching bandmaster in New England, he grew up surrounded by the music of brass bands and church music but, after a successful university education, decided to work for an insurance company, composing in the evenings and weekends completely revolutionary works which experimented with novel musical techniques including polytonality, polyrhythm, tone clusters, aleatory elements and quarter tones. An immediate flavour is given when you learn that Three Places in New England requires the orchestra to play orchestrated versions of two popular Victorian songs at the same time. That said, compared with most of what follows, a lot of Ives still sounds reassuringly familiar.

Edgar Varèse (1883 – 1965)

Whereas Ives was American through and through and incorporated snatches of hymn tunes, popular songs and classical references in works still titled Violin concerto and so on, Varèse was French and determinedly avant-garde. He travelled to New York during the Great War and pioneering a highly experimental sound, latterly involving tape recordings, which earned him the sobriquet ‘the father of electronic music’.

Coming from the world of Dada and cubism, Varèse was keen to incorporate non-musical sounds in a futurist attempt to capture ‘the sound of the city’ – look out for the fire siren in Amériques. His key works are Amériques (1918–1921), Offrandes (1921), Hyperprism (1922–1923), Octandre (1923), Intégrales (1924–1925), Arcana (1925–1927), Ionisation (1929–1931), Ecuatorial (1932–1934), Density 21.5 (1936), Dance for Burgess (1949), Déserts (1950–1954) Poème électronique (1957–1958).

Varèse broke down language and form into a stream of sensations, but he offered few compensating spells of lyricism. His jagged thematic gestures, battering pulses, and brightly screaming chords have no emotional cords tied to them, no history, no future. (p.137)

I like the YouTube poster who describes Amériques as like The Rite of Spring on crack.

George Antheil (1900 – 1959)

Antheil was born American, to German immigrant parents, who went to Paris determined to be the most avant of the garde, wowed modernist writers with his Dadaist/Futurist ideas, caused a riot at one of his premiers in the approved avant-garde style and brought back to New York his notorious Ballet Mécanique. This was originally intended to accompany an experimental film by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy with cinematography by Man Ray and which you can see on YouTube. To the kind of fire siren sounds Varèse pioneered Antheil added the use of several airplane propellers onstage. Sadly these tended to blow the audience’s programmes around and wreck ladies’ hairdos. The critics were underwhelmed at his ‘bad boy’ antics, and his reputation went into decline. After a spell in decadent Berlin writing for the stage, by the 1930s he was back in the States, writing film scores in Hollywood. Although it’s loud with four pianos and plenty of percussion, it’s striking how prominent the three xylophones manage to be. Xylophones suddenly appear in modernist music and have never gone away.

The Wikipedia article has a musical analysis of Ballet Mécanique.

Carl Ruggles (1876 – 1971)

A difficult, obstreperous, loudly racist and self-taught composer, Ruggles devised his own form of atonal counterpoint, on a non-serial technique of avoiding repeating a pitch class until a generally fixed number such as eight pitch classes intervened. He wrote painstakingly slowly so his output is relatively small. His longest and best-known work is Sun-Treader (1926–31) for large orchestra, a weighty 16 minutes long. As Ross sums him up:

If Varèse is like early Stravinsky with the folk motifs removed, Ruggles is like Ives without the tunes. (p.138)

Henry Cowell (1897 – 1965)

Cowell was another  highly experimental; American composer. He was the centre of a circle which included Ruggles, Dane Rudhyar, Leo Ornstein, John Becker, Colin McPhee, Varèse and Ruth Crawford. In the 1920s he founded new music magazines and organisations, published much new music, and reached out to incorporate South American composers such as Villa-Lobos. Among his many students were George Gershwin, Lou Harrison and John Cage.

George Gershwin (1898 – 1937)

The most glaring thing about Gershwin is how tragically young he died, aged 38 of a brain tumour. How much he had accomplished by then! A host of timeless songs, a pack of shows and revues, and then some immortal concert hall – Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and An American in Paris (1928) as well as the opera Porgy and Bess (1935). He grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family on the lower East Side of Manhattan, was intrigued by the music-making of some relatives, wangled piano lessons, got a job very young in Tin Pan Alley while the Great War was still on, churning out popular tunes and songs incorporating the latest sounds i.e. the arrival of jazz from the great mash-up of syncopated sounds which were in the air. His biggest money-spinner was the early song Swanee which Al Jolson heard him perform at a party and decided to make part of his black-face act.

As success followed success Gershwin took to the party high life of New York like an elegant swan. And beneath the stylish surface there was an enquiring mind, always questing to improve his musical knowledge. He continued to take musical lessons throughout his life and made several trips to Europe where he sought out the masters. He was particularly impressed by the serialist composer Alban Berg in Vienna. In Paris he studied with Maurice Ravel, who ended their lessons, supposedly by telling him, ‘Why be a second rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?’

Many commentators then and now have noticed how many of the popular ‘composers’ of 20s and 30s America were Jews – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter, George Gershwin – and how thoroughly they co-opted and expressed the African American idiom. This allowed a field day to anti-Semites like some of the Regionalists and ruralists. Scholars have pointed to the similiarities, both were ‘outsider’ groups liable to harsh discrimination. In our own censorious judgmental times, how would they have avoided the block accusation of ‘cultural appropriation’?

Ross is more relaxed and points to the notion of the Melting Pot – New York in particular was a massive mash-up of hundreds of influences, everyone – writers, poets, painters, composers, singers, comedians – was stealing from, remixing and contributing to a mass explosion of creativity. Also, as I read in a history of jazz decades ago, it is commonplace to say that jazz – and the vast ocean of sounds which come out of it, rock’n’roll, pop and the rest of it – is entirely due to African rhythms, syncopations and the blurring of voices and timbres Ross describes. But this history pointed out another truth so obvious nobody sees it – there isn’t a single African instrument anywhere in a jazz band. All of the instruments were invented by white Europeans as was the system of music notation used by all the big bands. Seen from this point of view, African American music ‘appropriated’ 500 years of European tradition – and gave it a good shake from which it’s never recovered.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

One of the prime shakers was Duke Ellington, the jazz big band leader who broadened its style and appeal into a large band capable of projecting a well-organised, full sound while still giving space to many of the greatest soloists of the day. With Ellington jazz moved out of low dives and bars and into the swellest of must-see nightclubs. His impeccable personal taste and style, his good manners and slyly intelligent way with reporters and interviewers made him a star, as did a steady stream of jazz standards. From the 1930s to the 1970s his band undertook wide-ranging tours of Europe and Latin America, helping to make him a household name around the world.


Chapter 8 – Music for All: Music in FDR’s America

A host of things led to decisive changes as the 1920s turned into the 1930s.

1. The Depression wrecked the country, destroying middle class savings and crushing the rural population. Somehow, eerily, there continued to be a market, in fact the market grew, for shiny escapist Hollywood fantasies of the high life, starring a new generation of movie stars Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Jean Harlow. As the country got poorer the Hollywood fantasies got shinier, the stars more glamorous.

2. Talkies And now they were in talking pictures. Sound completely transformed movies, in the obvious respect that you could hear the movie idols speak, but also because they could now carry extended soundtracks. Music. Short songs, extended show pieces or just background music. This music had to be accessible and comprehensible immediately. No place here for modernist experimentation – Varese, Ives, Ruggles, Virgil Thompson – no thank you. Opportunities opened for thousands of hack composers to mash up all the sounds they heard around them, jazz, swing, along with any useful bits of classical music, with a few geniuses standing above the crowd, most famously Erich Korngold (1897-1957), a child prodigy who produced the scores for many of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers in the 30s, and Bernard Hermann (1911-65) who kicked off his career spectacularly scoring Citizen Kane (1941) before going on to score a host of famous movies, including a clutch of Hitchcocks, most famously the shower scene of Psycho (1960). Both the children of Jewish immigrants.

3. Politics Stalin’s Communist International issued the call for a Popular Front to be formed against the fascist powers at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 but the whole of the 30s are sometimes seen as the Popular Front decade, when working men and women, some politicians, as well as the intelligentsia all became politicised, all asked themselves how such poverty and misery could come to the greatest country on earth and, not irrationally, concluded there was something very wrong with the system. More than one composer decided to reject the intellectual allure of modernism – indelibly associated with ‘abroad’, with the big city specially New York – and realised it was their ‘duty’ to write about their own country, about its sufferings, in music which would be understandable to all.

4. The Exodus Also Europe came to America. The advent to power of Hitler in 1933 drove a wave of European emigrants – Jews or socialists and communists, or just people the Nazis described as ‘degenerates’ – to flee to the Land of the Free. And so half the great composers of the day landed up in America – Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Rachmaninov, Weill, Milhaud, Hindemith, Krenek, Eisler and many others. As Ross puts it, entire communities from Paris or Berlin settled en masse in New York or the Hollywood Hills (p.260). they were all welcomed into the bosom of Roosevelt’s New Deal America although, arguably, in pampered America none of them produced work of the intensity which brought them to fame in troubled Europe. But it had another impact: in the 1920s artists and composers went on pilgrimage to Europe to sit at the feet of the masters and bring their discoveries back to breathless audiences. But now the masters were here, living among us and regularly putting on concerts. The special role of the artist as privileged messenger from the other world evaporated. They had to find another role.

5. The Federal Music Project was set up as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1935. It created employment for a small army musicians, conductors and composers and led to the thousands of concerts, music classes, the establishment of a Composers Forum Laboratory, as well as scores of music festivals and the creation of 34 new orchestras! An estimated 95 million Americans attended presentations by one or other FMP body. A huge new audience was created for a type of accessible culture which increasingly came to be defined as ‘middle-brow’ (p.278).

6. Radio and records These new regional orchestras were able to reach beyond concert halls into the homes of many more people as radio stations were set up across America and mass production made radios available to even the poorest families (like television a generation later). Music (as well as news, drama, features and so on) now reached far beyond the big cities. Radio made stars of some of the big name conductors, namely Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini, whose regular radio broadcasts brought Beethoven and Brahms to huge numbers of new listeners. Simultaneously the plastic discs, 78 rpm records and then long players, were a whole new medium which could bring recordings of all sorts of music into people’s homes to be played again and again. A massive revolutionary switch from live to recorded music began to sweep the country in this decade.

How as the American composer, struggling to find a voice and a role, to respond to the clamour and confusion of this new world?

Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)

Copland was another New York Jew who went to Europe to study music and composition for three years, returned and got only small audiences for his advanced pieces until, swayed by the changing social scene around him, and participating in communist meetings and agitation, he realised he needed to devote his talents to the common man, making his music as accessible, as uplifting, as optimistic as possible. His breakthrough came after a visit to Mexico (which often helps American writers, poets, composers, painters see their own country in a new light) and the syncopations of the Spanish tradition helped him escape from both the prison house of modernism but also the sounds of jazz and Broadway which dominated his native New York.

The result was the complex syncopations of El Salón México (1936) and there quickly followed the tide of his most popular works, which used big bold motifs, lots of brass and grandiose percussion, clear harmonies and slow-moving, stately themes which somehow convey the sense of space and openness – Billy the Kid (1938), Quiet City (1940), Our Town (1940), Fanfare for the Common Man (1942), Lincoln Portrait (1942), Rodeo (1942), Appalachian Spring (1944).

(Although he’s associated with soft American landscapes, if you look closely you’ll see that his most programmatic music is actually about the desert and the prairie, a distinctly non-European landscape. For me this echoes the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings inspired by the deserts of New Mexico – for me – emerged as the most distinctive works in the recent exhibition of 1930s art, America after the Fall.)

Copland created a way of sounding big and brash and bold and confident, often poignant and moving, which somehow didn’t seem to owe anything to the stilted European tradition. To this day his sound lives on in the movie music of, for example, John Williams, the most successful Hollywood composer of our day. Copland is always mentioned in the company of other populist composers like:

Samuel Barber (1910-81) remembered for his haunting Adagio for strings (1936)

Roy Harris (1898 – 1979) From Wikipedia: “Johana and Roy Harris were a tour de force in American music. Their collaboration has been compared to that of Robert and Clara Schumann. The Harrises organized concerts, adjudicated at festivals, and in 1959 founded the International String Congress. They promoted American folksong by including folksongs in their concerts and broadcasts.” Harris wrote 18 symphonies in an accessible style and on grand patriotic subjects – Gettysburg Address, West Point, Abraham Lincoln. This passage from Ross gives a good sense of his easy confident often amused style:

The work that won Harris nationwide attention was his Third Symphony of 1938 – an all-American hymn and dance for orchestra in which strings declaim orations in broad, open-ended lines, brass chant and whoop like cowboys in the galleries, and timpani stamp out strong beats in the middle of the bar. Such a big-shouldered sound met everyone’s expectations of what a true-blue American symphony should be. (p.280).

Swing

To most of us the period was dominated by the form of jazz known as swing and the big band jazz of Duke Ellington (formed his band 1923) and Count Basie (formed his big band in 1935) alongside white bandleaders like Ted Lewis (1919), Paul Whiteman (1920) the rather tamer offerings of white band-leaders like Tommy Dorsey (1935), Benny Goodman and latterly Glenn Miller. It was an August 1935 concert at the Palomar Ballroom by Benny Goodman which is sometimes hailed as the start of ‘the Swing Era’ and the band’s ‘s confident smooth big band sound earned Goodman the moniker ‘the King of Swing’, a status when his band went on to play the prestigious Carnegie Hall in new York, previously the domain of the most high-toned classical concerts, and took  it by storm. After twenty years of hard work by black and white musicians across the country, it felt like their music was finally accepted.

The highbrows weren’t immune. Stravinsky, the great liberator of rhythm in classical music, had incorporated sort-of jazz syncopations right from the start and now, in exile in California, wrote a Scherzo a la Russe  for Paul Whiteman’s band (1944) and an Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman’s, Woody later commenting that the Maestro hadn’t made any concessions at all to the idiom of the big band – it was Stravinsky through and through.

But Stravinsky’s adventures in America belong to the next decade, the 1940s (he came from Paris to do a U.S. concert tour in 1940 and then the Germans invaded France, so he was stuck).

Imagine you were a student in 1938, what would you listen to? Copland’s serious but consciously patriotic and possibly left-leaning orchestra panoramas of the Big Country? Would you subscribe to Henry Cowell’s New Music and followed the ongoing experiments of Varese, Ruggles and Ives? Would you dismiss all that as European rubbish and tune into Toscanini’s Saturday night broadcasts of the old classics, dominated by Beethoven and Brahms? Would you know about the efforts of the Seegers and others like them to track down and record the folk songs of rural folk before they died out? Or would save your dollars to take your best girl to go see each swing band which came through your mid-Western city, and have an impressive collection of discs by the Duke, the Count, Benny, Tommy and Woody?

Another world, other tastes, other choices.


Related links

Reviews of books about America

The Radical Eye @ Tate Modern

In 1990 Sir Elton John went into rehab and completely dried out, abandoning all intoxicants and stimulants. He began to look for a new hobby or activity to focus his, now completely sober, energies on. He’d always liked fashion photographs and had himself been snapped by some of the most famous fashion and music photographers of the 60s and 70s – but a chance encounter with a collector of older works opened his eyes to the dazzling world of classic Modernist photos from earlier in the twentieth century.

He bought some examples, read up on the subject, and soon he was hooked. Over the past 27 years, Elton has built up one of the greatest collections of modern photographs anywhere in the world, which stretches from the start of the twentieth century right up to the present day, including colour and digital photography.

Elton’s collection now exceeds 8,000 prints. He and the curator of what is now known as the Sir Elton John Photography Collection – Newell Harbin – and his photography consultant and first director of the collection – Jane Jackson – worked with Tate to select some 170 images for this show. They are all from the heyday of ‘Modernist’ photography, around 1920 to 1945.

The result is this wonderfully enjoyable and thought-provoking exhibition.

Themes

The exhibition is pure delight. It is divided into seven themed sections – portraits, bodies, experiments, objects, perspectives, abstractions, documents.

The sudden burst of creativity at the end of the Great War partly reflected the collapse of old traditional values in every sphere of life, but especially in art, which abandoned 19th century realism for an explosive diversity of new ways of seeing. It also reflected new technologies, such as the arrival of the Leica camera in 1927 which could contain a whole roll of film and so allowed a sequence of shots of the same object, thus allowing the taking of much more documentary or narrative photographs. At the same time many of the blurrings or odd effects created by photography which had been rejected by the Victorian forebears as aberrations from decorous realism now became actively sought after as striking visual experiments.

Above all, 20th century photography pioneered a revolution in seeing, an entirely new way of valuing the visual impact of all sorts of objects previously overlooked. If shot properly the stamens of a flower or a cluster of pots can look like objects from outer space. If made-up and shot crisply, the human face can have the other worldly clarity of a god.

Portraits On the one hand improved cameras enabled portraits to be created with a dazzling crispness and focus; on the other, modern art had liberated artists to find new ways to crop, angle and compose the human face, bringing out the geometry of lines and shapes buried in it, or creating new and challenging moods.

There’s a wall devoted to a sequence the photographer Irving Penn made in his studio in 1948 when he stumbled across the idea of pushing two background flats together to make a very acute angle for the sitters to pose in. To his surprise, instead of feeling cramped and stressed, many of the sitters felt comfortable and secure and visibly relaxed.

Bodies Unconventional composition and framing, experiments with lighting and focus are just some of the novel techniques used to show the human body in a completely new light, part machine, part god, part zoomorphic architecture.

  • Movement study by Rudolf Koppitz A shot like this demonstrates the way almost all the modernist affects are based on the notion of bringing out the geometric substructure in objects or people (although, as in Art Deco generally, background women here form a kind of curved geometry. The stylisation of their hair and eyes made me think of Sir Edward Burne-Jones’s willowy women – e.g. The Golden Stairs (1880) – but the differences highlight the way the interest has shifted from feminine ‘delicacy’ in the Victorian image, to an entirely new aesthetic which emphasises lithe muscularity. The naked woman is sensual, yes – but like a panther!)
  • Nude by Edward Weston (1936) The tendency of the age, of the Art deco 1920s and 30s to seek out the geometric in the organic is particularly obvious in this stunning photo. 1) The female body is turned into an almost abstract shape. Compare and contrast Matisse’s blue nude cutouts from 20 years later. 2) As with so many of these images, the closer you look, the more you see, including the hair on her leg, the sharpness of the toenails, loose threads from the rug.

Experiments shows various photographers playing with collage, distortion, montage, colouring some but not all of the image. The standout is probably –

Objects includes stunning still lifes, converting everyday objects into vibrantly sharp and vivid images.

Documents A million miles away from the Hollywood glamour of Gloria Swanson, the New York stylishness of Duke Ellington or the fashion magazine styling of Norman Parkinson, is the section devoted to the socially conscious photos of the 1930s Depression in America. The most famous photographers form this era are:

  • Migrant mother (1936) by Dorothea Lange Super famous image of the 1930s Depression, but in the flesh it has much more immediacy than any reproduction can convey.
  • Floyd Burroughs by Walker Evans (1936) Ditto. Both Evans and Lange were employed by the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration which was set up in 1935 to combat rural poverty. The administrator, Roy Stryker, in a much-quoted phrase, aimed to ‘show America to Americans.’ A laudable aim but these images are now 80 years old, from the year when Nazi Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. Are they documentary resources, liberal propaganda, publicity stills, historical records, works of art? Apparently, some 200,000 photos were taking during the existence of the Administration: are they all works of art?
  • New York by Helen Levitt (1940) She took many snaps of street life in her native New York City.

Abstraction and perspective I found some of the documentary photos a little sentimental and a little patronising. A bit uncomfortable about the image of a homeless, impoverished, desperate migrant mother being converted into an object to be owned by a multi-millionaire, displayed in London’s most popular tourist attraction, for a paying audience of well-heeled visitors, to swoon and feel sorry about.

I preferred the anonymous power of many of the abstractions, and especially the place where the human and the abstract meet – in photos of amazing works of architecture and engineering converted, by characteristically modernist perspective and the use of highly focused black-and-white, into works of stunning abstract beauty.

I grew up in a gas station amid the smell of petrol and tyres. I’ve always loved industrial art. I’ve always preferred the rainbow sheen of oil on dirty puddles to vases of flowers in nice front rooms.

The Ullberg was hanging next to a street scene by English photographer, Norman Parkinson.

This is good, but I much preferred the Ullberg. Although it has the components of a modernist photo, Parkinson’s shot lacks the precision and intensity. The puddles are a bit blurry. Fine. But compare and contrast with the super-clarity of the Ullberg, which is sharp enough to cut you, and also presents a far richer depth of information for the eye and mind.

Both reminded me that, at the wonderful 2011 Royal Academy exhibition of Hungarian photography I learned that to make a classic Modernist street photo you need to do just three things: it must be in black and white – take it from above – and have diagonals in it – lines of paving, tramlines, people marching, or just one person at an angle. Voila!

The curator commentary

The audioguide is worth buying as much for its occasional descent into art bollocks as for its information and insights. How the heart sinks when you see some photos depicting models with masks – you know the curator will be unable to resist talking about the usual antonyms of ‘appearance and reality’, ‘art and artifice’, ‘identity and anonymity’, and so on. Photos of the naked human body will trigger a torrent of verbiage about artists exploring ‘issues’ of sexuality. Worst of all, any female photographer will prompt the usual vapourings about ‘subverting’ gender stereotypes and the pain of being a pioneer in a male-dominated blah blah.

It’s not that these thoughts are particularly wrong, it’s just that they’re so bleeding obvious, and so thumpingly predictable. Almost every exhibition I’ve ever been to sooner or later reveals that the artist was ‘exploring issues of sexuality’ or ‘subverting gender stereotypes’.

It’s a constant source of wry humour that the very art critics and curators who are so keen to talk about art being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ and ‘subverting’, ‘transgressing’, ‘confronting’ and ‘interrogating’ this, that or the other social convention, are themselves so staggeringly limited in the way they think about art, so repetitive and predictable, are such tame conformists to the narrow and well-trodden themes of ‘radical theory’.

Elton John as critic

All of which highlights the biggest single revelation of the exhibition, which is: What an extraordinarily sensitive, insightful, thoughtful and articulate man Sir Elton John is! Every photo singled out for an audioguide commentary by the curators also features some words from Sir Elton -and Elton’s thoughts are consistently more informative, insightful and memorable than the scholarly version.

This, you can’t help feeling, is because they are born out of love. Elton’s deep and genuine passion for modern photography shows in everything he says about it. Sometimes it’s just putting into words an impression which was hovering in the viewer’s mind, such as when he points out that the more you look at Edward Weston’s White door the more pregnant with meaning it becomes, the more ominous and mysterious, the more you want to know what’s through the door. It could be the start of a novel or a movie.

For me his most insightful comment was how classic photographs bear looking at again and again and again, each time noticing something new. These works are hung all around his Atlanta apartment so that he passes by them all day long. And each time he looks and pays attention to one of his photographs, he sees something new in it.

I know this could also be said of painting, drawings, a lot of other forms – but, being here, you can see what he’s driving at because photography, almost by definition, contains more information than any other art form. In a photograph nothing is left blank: the entire visual field is capturing whatever was there in front of the camera. Even the white spaces are recording a reality which often, when you look closer, has something in it. Whereas the white space in a painting might just be white.

Having visited the enormous David Hockney exhibition last week led me naturally to compare these classic photos with the painter’s works.

For a start almost all Hockney’s paintings are ginormous, wall-size, whereas all the works here are small, most are the size of an A4 sheet of paper or smaller.

But to return to Elton’s point, whereas the closer you looked at many of, say, Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, the less detail there is to see in these enormous broad-brush swathes of paint -here, in these small and exquisite classic photographs, the closer you look, the more there is to see.

Take Man Ray’s photo of an ostrich an egg. Seen at the distance of a few yards, it looks round and smooth with a nice reflected shine on the surface to give a sense of depth and curvature. But the closer you get, the more you can see the fine pores pitting the surface of the egg, which are brought out by the little patch of reflected light; until only a foot from the image, you realise the surface is completely pocked with holes, almost like a miniature moonscape. And then there’s the detail of the wooden surface it’s on: the closer you get, the more you can see the grain of the wood and the straightness of those lines plays off against the curvature of the egg. And so on.

A lot of this detail doesn’t really come over in any reproductions you see, even in the catalogue of the exhibition itself, which is printed on matt paper and nowhere nearly as attractive as the originals.

None of the reproductions are as grippingly dynamic as the real prints. Only in the flesh can you look closer and closer and closer and see more and more detail. Only in the flesh do you start to get really hooked and really start to see what Elton is on about.

Another example is Dorothea Lange’s famous image of the Migrant woman. It was only looking at the print really close up that I realised that she is holding an infant child whose white corpse-like face is almost hidden by the tree or vertical line on the right hand side of the photo. I thought I knew this image inside out, but seeing a print this close up made me realise I was wrong.

Lots of the photos are like this, revealing depths and then further depths.

This also makes sense of another of Elton’s comments – that photographs tell the truth, whereas paintings lie. There are all kind of political and aesthetic objections to that statement and yet, like everything else the man says, it is persuasive because it carries the conviction of his obvious love and care for these marvellous images.

After all, there is an extraordinary power and depth and truthfulness to these photos. Maybe it’s something to do with their brightly-lit clarity – and that this crisp clarity of image results in a greater density of information per square inch. There is just more going on in a good photo than in most paintings of a comparable size. Subconsciously the mind is registering a whole host of detail, the kind of extraneous detail which most painters consciously leave out, but which are often here to distract and illuminate and shed new perspective. I keep thinking about the woman’s toenails in Edward Weston’s fabulous nude. Or Duke Ellington’s shirt cuffs.

It’s the sheer amount of visual information which a camera captures which both explains why they really do repay repeated viewings, and why so many of them give the impression of flooding and gratifying the eye and the viewing mind.

What great photographs! What a great exhibition! What a great guy!

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

Glass Tears (Les Larmes) (1932) by Man Ray. Collection Elton John © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016

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